May 28, 2022 9 min read

Good Careers Gone Bad - Subtle but Lethal Mistakes in Mid Career

Active inertia explains how past success causes failure in mid career professionals

Success often carries with it the seeds of failure. Mid career is an especially dangerous time when past successes lay the ground for eventual career failure.

The framework of active inertia is useful in understanding this tendency. Mid career professionals need to stay alert to this insidious pattern that creeps up over time and doesn't look like a mistake in the short run.


If you are in the managerial/executive ranks at any level, it means you have done reasonably well so far in your career. However, what got you here might not get you there.

To make it worse, what got you here can actively prevent you from getting there. I should know as I was myself a victim of this mechanism.

How success sets us up for failure

In my work, I come across talented, ambitious individuals  who are on top of their game and yet at the same time stuck in their current roles.

Intellectually they understand they need a new, different challenge but cannot seem to engineer a way out. It is usually not because of a lack of action on their part but rather not being able to see what’s hindering their path.

What makes this worse is that it tends to become clear only in hindsight, sometimes a bit too late.

In his 1999 HBR article Why Good Companies go Bad, Donald Sull highlights how the very factors that make companies successful also leads to their eventual failure. That same framework is equally applicable to our careers. [1]

He highlights how companies can clearly see emerging trends and even take action but unfortunately end up digging a deeper hole.

The problem is not an inability to take action but an inability to take appropriate action.

– Donald Sull in Harvard Business Review [1]

He identifies four mechanisms that lead to failure. They are insidious because they are the very things that made us successful to begin with. But over time, they turn into liabilities that hinder growth and eventually sink careers.

If we are not alert to this pattern, this can easily turn into quicksand which can be hard to get out of. Let's examine each of the four mechanisms from the perspective of a successful career.

Active Inertia

We typically associate inertia with stagnation. But it is equally applicable when we are moving fast. When we are moving at warp speed, making changes and taking appropriate action can be even more complicated and counterintuitive.

The main culprit that Sull identifies is what he calls active inertia.

Active Inertia is an organization’s tendency to follow established patterns of behavior—even in response to dramatic environmental shifts. Stuck in the modes of thinking and working that brought success in the past, market leaders simply accelerate all their tried-and-true activities.

In trying to dig themselves out of a hole, they just deepen it.

– Donald Sull in Harvard Business Review [1]

Active inertia perhaps is a much more stronger phenomenon in our lives and careers than in organizations. Humans are wired for comfort, security and predictability. It goes against human nature to seek changes that make us uncomfortable. We tend to stick with the tried, tested, and familiar.

The Four Mechanisms of Active Inertia

He goes on to identify four mechanisms, what he calls hallmarks of active inertia, that ultimately lead to failures.

1. Strategic frames turn into blinders

Strategic frames are the mental models—the mind-sets—that shape how managers see the world. But while frames help managers to see, they can also blind them.

By focusing managers’ attention repeatedly on certain things, frames can seduce them into believing that these are the only things that matter. In effect, frames can constrict peripheral vision, preventing people from noticing new options and opportunities.

As a strategic frame grows more rigid, managers often force surprising information into existing schema or ignore it altogether.

– Donald Sull in Harvard Business Review [1]

Over the course of our career we develop our own set of mental models that govern what we do and don’t do, what we are open/closed to, and so on. They feed our narratives around what works and what doesn’t.

Because this is intrinsically how our brains work, we don’t necessarily pay attention to them. But they are the lenses through which we evaluate everything and take action.

When we are unaware of them, they can turn into blindspots that prevent us from seeing the true picture or other potential opportunities. We have become paradigm blind. We only see what we are looking for or that we are familiar with, and blind to everything else.

We can also make the mistake of confusing correlation with causation. We might have succeeded inspite of certain behaviors rather than because of them. But previous successes blind us to this fact.

What are we not seeing because of our current orientation? What are we choosing to not see?

2. Processes harden into routines

[J]ust as with strategic frames, established processes often take on a life of their own. They cease to be means to an end and become ends in themselves.

People follow the processes not because they’re effective or efficient but because they’re well known and comfortable. They are simply “the way things are done.”

Once a process becomes a routine, it prevents employees from considering new ways of working. Alternative processes never get considered, much less tried. Active inertia sets in.

– Donald Sull in Harvard Business Review [1]

This one is perhaps even more true for humans than for organizations. We are creatures of habit and wired to stay away from anything that causes discomfort or anxiety.

We prefer routines because they reduce the uncertainty around us and give us grounding. While helpful on a daily basis, do them long enough and they turn into hardened habits that we cannot break out of.

This causes us to choose a certain kind of activity over others, which in turn concentrates our skillset in that particular activity at the expense of others.

If a certain kind of conversation or a certain network of stakeholders is what we are comfortable with, we keep going back to that.

Our routines prevent us from seeing things anew. While routines make our lives efficient they can also become drudgery. They often provide comfort, making it hard to break out of our standard patterns.

This is how managers and leaders continue to work at jobs they have long outgrown with no element of challenge. Active inertia has become an anchor keeping them moored to their current roles.

They get habituated to success and equally afraid of failure. They have gotten used to a certain successful image of ourselves, even when it comes with a heavy price and burden.

What are we afraid of doing or attempting? And why?

3. Relationships become shackles

When conditions shift, however, companies often find that their relationships have turned into shackles, limiting their flexibility and leading them into active inertia.

The need to maintain existing relationships with customers can hinder companies in developing new products or focusing on new markets.

– Donald Sull in Harvard Business Review [1]

Just as organizations have stakeholders, all of us at an individual level have our own set of stakeholders. This includes our teams, colleagues, management, and so on.

Our current stakeholders form a web of expectations. Expectations about how we are supposed to act and what is expected of us.

We try to be consistent with these expectations. That’s what makes us sane human beings.

However, these expectations can become constraints to learning and acting in new ways. Even when we know a certain action will be helpful to us we hesitate to change because it will be inconsistent with our current identity.

Our close contacts don’t just blind us, they also bind us to our outdated identities.

It is important to conduct our “role rehearsals” outside our usual circles because the old audience tends to narrowly typecast us.

– Herminia Ibarra in Working Identity [2]

Every successful career is built on a series of relationships and networks. Many of these naturally evolve over time.

When we are coasting, we often don't look at our networks objectively. We don’t actively seek out new relationships and networks not realizing that our past networks might be preventing plugging into other potentially opportunity-rich networks.

We use commitments to tie ourselves down. We fail to take a closer look at them to see if they are still valid and still consistent with our evolving values.

Commitment without questioning produces an “organization man” who has no identity beyond title and function. To be a growing adult means to make commitments that are informed by prior questioning.

– Herminia Ibarra in Working Identity [2]

I am not questioning commitments here. Commitments are what enable success. But implicit, unexamined commitments are what we should avoid.

What are our implicit commitments that are not helpful? When did we last examine them?

4. Values harden into dogmas

A company’s values are the set of deeply held beliefs that unify and inspire its people. Values define how employees see both themselves and their employers.

As companies mature, however, their values often harden into rigid rules and regulations that have legitimacy simply because they’re enshrined in precedent.

– Donald Sull in Harvard Business Review [1]

As a career progresses, through experience we learn more about ourselves which in turn moulds our values. But we forget to explicitly examine these values on a regular basis.

The values of a 25 year old in the early phase of her career is very different from that of a mid-career exec in his forties. Except that the mid-career exec is sometimes still operating on values from when she was 25.

When values go unexamined, they turn into dogmas that cannot be questioned.

Rather than being flexible and adaptive, our values become chains we cannot break out of.

Even though our basic assumptions often remain hidden from our conscious awareness, they nevertheless determine how we manage our careers. Too often we fail to question them, even if they are obsolete or wrong. Precisely because they are taken for granted, basic assumptions are very hard to change.

– Herminia Ibarra in Working Identity [2]

Over time, based on our successes and failures, we create notions and narratives around what we are capable of and not. Our successes cause us to look in similar directions. We forget that when we ventured out we did not necessarily know whether we would be successful or not.

Thus notions of our capability and capacity go unexamined. Our stories end up becoming dogmas that cannot be challenged, and thus constrict our available set of opportunities. Or at least what we end up choosing.

What are some of our values that might not be true anymore?

Do you have Active Inertia in your career?

Below are a series of statements (adapted from Sull’s list for companies) that might indicate active inertia in our careers.

  • I am well aware of the available opportunities and there’s nothing out there.
  • Maintaining status quo is my top priority. I cannot risk losing what I have.
  • I might not be making breakthroughs, but I am doing good enough. I am delivering results.
  • I have this thing figured out. It is more or less on auto-pilot.
  • I need to stay focussed on this one thing, one career path, one career ladder. I cannot get distracted by these other shiny objects.
  • I am part of a stable team, stable company.
  • I am well-embedded and well-respected in my current networks. I don’t have to participate in newer networks.
  • I am really good at what I do and it is my core competency. Starting from scratch does not make sense at this stage.
  • It is not prudent to try new things at this late stage in my career.
  • If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
  • I stick with projects I know I can deliver successfully. I don’t try to push limits.
  • I cannot alienate my current management team by acting differently or inconsistently with what is expected of me.
  • I have too much invested in my current role/path/career.
  • I might be miserable but at least it pays well.

If you catch yourself saying any of the above statements, consider in what context you might be saying them.

Career drift

The idea is not to go make changes just for the sake of it. Many of the above statements are appropriate in a successful, satisfying career.

The key is to stay alert to shifts over time and do a check-in on a regular basis. Our values and needs change over time and so do our statements.

Not doing regular, designed check-ins is one reason why careers happen more often by accident than by design.

We have to stay alert at the wheel in order to prevent what might be called career drift, and end up in careers we ultimately despise or are just plain jaded with.

The most typical problem at mid career is not defining what kind of work we find enjoyable and meaningful.

Rather, it is figuring out how to transfer old preferences and values to new and different contexts and how to integrate those with changing priorities and newly blooming potential. It is a problem of recombining and reanchoring.

And the “solution” is never the job change itself. Self-creation is a lifelong journey. Only by our actions do we learn who we want to become, how best to travel, and what else will need to change to ease the way.

- Herminia Ibarra in Working Identity [2]

Balancing dedication and commitment with strategic checkpoints along the way ensures we are heading in the right direction and in alignment with our true values.


Consider what you might do differently in light of this framework. Work with a coach, peer, mentor, or even your manager to consider options and viewpoints you might not have considered yet.

  • Do you have active inertia in your career right now?
  • What actions are you continuing to take that are not helpful?
  • Where are your potential blindspots?
  • And how can you uncover them?

Liked this article? You will dig The Managerial Mind on Mondays newsletter. It's free and every edition covers essential frameworks on leadership, careers, and organizations in bite sized form.

Further reading

For more frameworks on thinking about careers check out Two Critical Questions About Your Career, The Set of Our Sail in Work and Life and 3 Critical Questions to Ask Before Setting Goals.

For a comprehensive collection of effective career change frameworks from my own experience check out this article.

Footnotes & References

  1. Why Good Companies go Bad by Donald Sull in Harvard Business Review.
  2. Working Identity by Herminia Ibarra.

Sheril Mathews
After a 20 year stint in various technical/management/leadership/ positions in the wilds of corporate America I started LS to help leaders & high performers level up their game.
Table of Contents
Great! You’ve successfully signed up.
Welcome back! You've successfully signed in.
You've successfully subscribed to Leading Sapiens.
Your link has expired.
Success! Check your email for magic link to sign-in.
Success! Your billing info has been updated.
Your billing was not updated.